IT journalist Kenneth Neil Cukier found his laptop the target of a Customs and Excise swoop when he stepped off the Eurostar shuttle from Paris at
London's Waterloo station. The Paris correspondent for Communications Week International was in the British capital for a one-day editorial strategy meeting. But he was delayed when two customs officers pulled him to one side and took him to an
area where other officers were carrying out random searches. He describes what happened next in an e-mail which has been posted on the Internet
A customs officer told me to lay my computer bag on the table, and inspected my ticket and passport. After learning I was a reporter, she demanded to see my press card (issued by the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs), and asked where I was going
in London, why, and for how long. Do you know there are things that are illegal to bring into the UK? she asked. Uh, yeah ... There are many things that are illegal to bring across borders - do you have in mind any thing in particular?,
I said. Illegal drugs, fire arms, bomb making materials, lewd and obscene pornographic material.... I felt a rush of relief.
I was late and now was assured I could get on with my journey. I am carrying none of that, I replied. Is that a computer in your bag? Yes. Does it have Internet on it? Here, I confess, I really didn't know how to answer. What does
one say to a question like that? I was struck dumb. I use the computer to access the Internet, yes, I said, rather proud of myself for my accuracy. Is there any pornography on it? she said, stoically.
I figured out what's going on. But I'm mentally paralyzed from all the synapses sparkling all at once in my head Does she not understand that Internet content is distributed around the world? That I'm just dialing a local number, be it in France
or the UK, and that whether I cross a border is moot to what I'm able to access?
"There is no pornography stored on the hard drive," I stated. "Do you mind if I check." she says rather than asks, and begins to take the computer out of the bag. "I'm just going to hook it up over there and scan the hard
drive..." she continues. And then her face turns dour. "Oh! It's an Apple," she says, dejectedly. "Our scanner doesn't work on Apples."
At this point, it's all a little bit too much, too fast, for me to handle. From seeing my personal privacy ripped out from under me with a computer-enema to an immediate about-face and witnessing my oppressors flounder in the pap of their own
incompetence was just too much to bear.
Then, of course, I sort of relished the irony of it all. I swung into naive-mode "Oh. Oh well," I said and began packing up. "Why not?" "I dunno - it just doesn't," she said. "Is this a common thing that you do?
Scan PCs?" "It happens quite often," she said. "Do you catch a lot?" "Sometimes," she says, cautiously. " What's the fine? The penalty?" I asked. She started to become uncomfortable and tried to move me
along. "It depends. Every case is different. It depends what they have."
"What about if I had encryption -- do you check for that too?" I said, disdaining the risk that she might want to check the computer "by hand" since I'd mentioned the dreaded C-word.... "Huh?! I don't know about
that...." "You don't know what cryptography is?" I asked. "No. Thank you, you can go now," she said.
And thus ended my experience with inspector "K. PARE_," whose name tag was partially torn at the final one or two letters of her last name.
Customs & Excise confirms searches
A Customs and Excise spokesman confirmed on Thursday that such random checks were taking place. But he said he could not reveal details of the software being used to check hard drives for pornography or say what it did precisely.
"There's a variety of software we can use and we've been using CD-Rom readers for some time to check disks for pornography," he told me. "We're targeting people who fit particular profiles," he added, without elaborating.
"Technology has moved on and this is us simply keeping abreast of what's happening. We do have some quite sophisticated computer equipment in the department as well as experts who work with our investigation teams."
The spokesman said a number of paedophiles who had downloaded images from the Internet and stored them on their hard disk had been apprehended through Customs work. But he could not cite any cases of this happening at border inspections. He said
discoveries were made mainly by intercepting mail.
"We are asked to protect society from a number of things, including drugs and pornography, and we have the powers to search people and their belongings," he said.
Civil liberties fears
"I'm not sure what's worse: that the scan is so silly, or that it's so dangerous for our democratic institutions. This really flies in the face of some basic principles of Western society. It's very scary to realize that our principles are so
fragile and can be mistreated so easily.
"Scanning one's computer disc - which in a digital age comes close to one's private thoughts - has immense social and political consequences. It's remarkable a policy like that could be instituted without a proper public policy debate. It's
really about what type of society we want to live in: Do our governments respect their responsibility as stewards of an open society?
"They can answer that in the negative if they like - but then we're repudiating the values of the Enlightenment, let's be at least clear on that. We can't lose sight of that. The debate over Internet content forces us to consider our values
of privacy, free speech and the sanctity of the individual. Wouldn't it be a pity if those hard-won values were shaken by a short-sighted customs guard....
"For me, the most remarkable thing has been the huge amount of e-mail I received after just a couple of hours from when the message was posted on the Internet. The story seems to have really touched a nerve with people. The messages, from all
around the world, have been supportive and grateful that I spoke out.
" It's an odd feeling for me - I'm just an ordinary guy who travelled across a border."
Update: More details
I spotted the following article by Simon Davies that give a little more detail about the extreme and excessive powers granted to Customs.
BUSINESSMEN carrying laptops into the country are having their computers routinely scanned, and even snapshots taken of their disks. Those who fail to cooperate are liable to arrest.
A spokesman for Customs and Excise said officials would routinely scan laptops for illegal material such as pornography. Encrypted files will be treated in the same way as a ordinary luggage. "So far as we are concerned, there is no
difference between an encrypted file and a locked suitcase," said the spokesman. "All travellers entering the country should be prepared to have their equipment scanned."
Laptop carriers will have little choice but to submit to the demands of Customs officials. People refusing to open files or divulge keys will be subject to a court order. Refusal to obey the order would constitute contempt of court - an offence
that can result in imprisonment.
Unlike cases involving body searches, Customs officers are not required to establish grounds for "reasonable suspicion" before conducting a computer search.
The Home Office has not issued specific guidelines on the practice, leaving Customs officers free to take copies of disk scans. This has alarmed business leaders, who have raised concerns that sensitive commercial data could be compromised.
Customs and Excise refused to disclose the nature of their equipment, saying that the matter constituted "operational security". The spokesman did confirm, however, that the department used "a large variety of equipment".
However, Peter Sommer, a visiting fellow in the Computer Security Research Centre of the London School of Economics, said he believed Customs and Excise may be using disk imaging equipment such as DIBS and Flight Server which takes a complete copy
of a hard-disk - not only the visible files but hidden material including previously deleted material.
"Once they have a copy to work on a simple directory search will identify graphics files and quite often the name of the file is indicative of content." Sommer believes this information would be enough for a preliminary "pull"
requiring little skill.
The chairman of the CBI Information Security Panel, Chris Sundt, said there was a fundamental difference between physical searches, and searches of electronic data on computers. He said guidelines should be developed to ensure adequate protection
of security and personal privacy.